Montag, 13. Juni 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXI - Indonesia: Conclusion

After over a month in Kalimantan and Sulawesi, here's my summary on what impression this country has left me with and what is like to travel in it. For the sake of simplicity I will use the term Indonesia, even if the described state might only apply to aforementioned islands.

Ease of Travel

Although they might look like they are close together, sights in Indonesia are painfully far apart. No map adequately conveys the situation you will encounter locally; what looks like roads are actually pothole cruises and flooded dirt tracks which curl up and down the ubiquitous mountain ranges in serpentines. You will likely be seated in a rusty bus with enough legroom for a four-year-old, driven by an amphetamine-guzzling maniac who will make you share his sleep deprivation by blasting bittersweet Indonesian love songs at you both day and night. The Indonesian habit of leaving only with a full vehicle will sometimes cost you hours, as the bus slowly meanders through villages in search of additional passengers. Rain and accidents can make a route all but impassable and you should always plan on getting stuck somewhere, especially off the main roads.

In general, the amount of travel between things you want to see is rarely proportionate to their quality which is probably why many people who come to these islands only visit a single location (such as Bunaken island.)
The upside is that travel is quite affordable, but make sure you know the local price as people will always overcharge you. Flights are very, very cheap so if you make use of them more often than not it will save you a lot of hassle. I didn't, and consequently lost a lot of time.

Travel outside heavily frequented areas is immensely expensive and if you want to get off the beaten track, bring enough cash to fit in a sports bag. ATMs only dispense up to 1.25 million Rupiah ( ~ 150 $), so if you're going places without banks, prepare for a longer stay in a town just to get cash.
Knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia is almost required. If you have trouble learning languages (or lack of desire to do so), stick to the main tourist sites. Bahasa Indonesia is as easy a language as they come, with next to no grammar, so even a little effort is quickly rewarded by welcoming smiles.

Social Interactions

While far from homogenous I generally found Indonesians to be very pleasant and friendly, although they will never go out of their way to help you or approach you with helpful intention. If someone makes contact (more than the constant "Hello Mister" shouts) they always want your money. No exceptions. I know that sounds harsh, but I have never been to any country where people are making such effort to get to your finances. Indonesians with more innocent intentions are too shy to just chat you up and will almost never do so. Even if people seemingly only want to hang out, they will bring up their business interests later on and interaction will promptly cease once they are declined.

This behaviour permeates through society, from peasant to politician, and has left me somewhat disappointed. That isn't to say you can't make friends. It is just very difficult, requires your initiative and becomes nigh impossible as soon as any commercial opportunity is spotted. The most friendly people ironically seem to be those who already have lots of money, invitations for food and excessive fotoshooting usually follow suit.
Corruption is reliably rampant and you will always find someone who will let you into a closed site for a small fee.

Cost and Quality of Living

Indonesia is cheap with meals being between 1 and 5 $, overland transport roughly 10 $ for 4 hour rides, flights between cities between 30 and 50 $. Accommodation is around 4 to 10 $ for cheaper hostels.
Indonesian food is good; but rarely so great you'd want to write home about. People have been telling me it's better on Bali and Java, but on Sulawesi the food lives more off its novelty value than its quality. Flavours tend to be simple and earthy and if you don't like it spicy you might find yourself going hungry in smaller towns. If you expect to get any of the produce the area is famous for then you will be disappointed: practically all high quality cocoa, coffee or fruit the islands produce get exported.
Room price is no indicator for quality and you might find a 4 $ room in Palu to be cleaner and more comfortable than a 12$ room in Samarinda.

Tourism Value

Indonesia's inaccessibility is both its burden and its boon. It is entirely possible to find pristine valleys and jungles without having to rent an entire expedition team and in some areas the only modern items you'll find are cigarettes. If you love hiking, trekking and diving, then Indonesia is a country of extraordinary beauty and limitless amazement: lush islands, towering volcanoes, green rice fields and beautiful reefs abound here and can be enjoyed at relatively low cost. The longer you wait however, the less of this beauty you will find, as I fear the rampant destruction of Indonesia's natural resources and increasing tourism will mean that in the not-too-far future your experience will be much less grandiose.

In terms of culture there is relatively little to see. Far from the temples of Bali and the bustle of Jakarta, the only "cultural" activity is visiting the many semi-civilized tribes and their strange rituals. I personally have my qualms with ethno-tourism, but if you enjoy bull sacrifices and attending random stranger's funerals, you'll have a blast. The small island sultanates have left little tangible history and European legacy consists mainly of half-dismantled forts. On the plus side, Indonesia's cultural heritage is often up for sale in exchange for a little fee. Just make sure you leave enough time so they can make a replica for future generations to display.


So did I enjoy myself? Not as much as I expected: many of my initial plans were thwarted by underestimating travel times and costs due to the utterly incorrect information given in the Lonely Planet guide, as well as by the fickle nature of activities such as wildlife spotting. Social interaction with Indonesians was unfortunately more often unpleasant then not, even if some notable exceptions make up for that. The amount of effort required for what you're actually getting was not always optimal; however, I would definitely consider this leg of my journey a success. It was a classical case of coming in search of one thing and finding something else more valuable instead.

Indonesia has given me an entirely new perspective on my life, one that we all get taught about in regular intervals, but that only really reveals itself when you experience it first hand: The amazing amount of luck we all have to be born in a wealthy, liberal country with education, safety and freedom of choice. To see societies where the benefits that we all take for granted do not exist makes you understand how far we have come as a race and what an immense amount of progress the accumulated efforts of human beings can bring.
When you enter a semi-tribal community where people have been headhunters as recently as a decade ago, where a sleight to someone's personal honor caused by unwillingness to share cigarettes can justify a murder, where people still believe that shamans can fly or kill with a glance, then you realize what vast distance reason had to overcome to give us even basic human rights and codes of law. It has made me appreciate the safety that comes with our modern society, and that a social faux pas will not get me killed unexpectedly. I have realized how original, daring and revolutionary the ideas of the great religion founders where, and why they took so many people by storm.

On a less fundamental note, meeting people who are stuck in remote villages with no means of education, no prospect of betterment of their situation, has once again shown me what a lucky bastard I am. Depressed because you didn't know what to do after uni? Too many choices, too many possibilities? I met people here who are very intelligent, but they don't even have a single possibility to ever make use of it. Doomed to live a life between the promises of the ubiquitous TV and their reality of untapped abilities, they eke out an existence in misery, wasting talent that will never come to fruition and are aware of their fate. Your ex was a jobless pothead? Well, lucky you, because you could leave. Here your only purpose in life as a woman is to get pinned down with your first kid when you are fourteen, shut up and hope that your husband doesn't turn out to be a violent drunkard. And be careful with how happy you are: women who enjoy themselves too much are always in suspicion of being a loose woman, and we're not even talking sex yet. Your boss is an incompetent asshole? You won't mind that if you are working under the prospect that he will shoot you and dump you overboard if he considers you incompetent.

Indonesia has filled me with a deep and lasting gratitude about my lot in life, the infinitely small chance of being born into a life that gives me, and indeed all of us, infinite opportunities if we only pursue them. It also left me with a certain sense that, in a way, I owe all those people I met here to make fullest use of this chance given to me, to not waste the many potentials we are given. I know it's something we hear often, but next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, get rejected by someone you find hot or you feel overwhelmed with the demands of the modern world, I urge you to think about all the unlucky suckers who would love to be in your place and I hope it makes it more bearable.

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